Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party leads Turkish election viewed as referendum on presidency

Associated Press
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan voted in the municipal elections in Istanbul - AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party is leading in Sunday's municipal elections that he has depicted as a fight for Turkey's survival, and which are seen as a crucial test of the strongman's own support amid a sharp economic downturn.

State broadcaster TRT says Mr Erdogan's conservative Islamic-based party has garnered nearly 47.5 per cent of the votes with about 35 per cent of the more than 194,000 ballot boxes counted. According to the early results, the main opposition party has 31 per cent of the vote.

The voting was marred by scattered election violence that killed at least two people and injured dozens of others across Turkey. Unofficial final results were expected late Sunday.

Economic prosperity provided Mr Erdogan and his party with previous election victories.

But the party could lose key posts in the mayoral elections taking place in 30 large cities, 51 provincial capitals and hundreds of districts as Turkey copes with a weakened currency, a double-digit inflation rate and soaring food prices.

Polling in Turkeys local elections began on Sunday, with 57 million registered voters expected to cast their ballots Credit: Sebahatdin Zeyrek/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The high stakes of the local contests were brought into stark display with the deaths of two members of the Islamic-oriented Felicity Party, a small rival of the president's Justice and Development Party. Felicity's leader, Temel Karamollaoglu, alleged a polling station volunteer and a party observer were shot by a relative of a ruling party candidate.

The killings weren't caused by "simple animosity," but happened when the volunteers tried to enforce the law requiring ballots to be marked in private voting booths instead of out in the open, Karamollaoglu tweeted.

Speaking to reporters after he voted, Mr Erdogan said he was sad about the deaths and didn't want them to become a cause for "a questioning or a judgment between political parties."

Fights related to local elections in several provinces also produced dozens of injuries, Turkey's official Anadolu news agency reported. At least 21 people were injured in southeastern Diyarbakir province from brawls over the election of neighborhood administrators, Anadolu said.

The exact causes of the fights remained unclear. Election campaigning was highly polarized, with Mr Erdogan and other officials using hostile rhetoric toward opposition candidates.

Sunday's elections were a first test for Mr Erdogan since he won re-election under a new system of government that gave the presidency expanded powers.

Mr Erdogan's ruling party has renewed an alliance with the country's nationalist party to increase votes. Opposition parties also coordinated strategies and put forward candidates under alliances in an effort to maximize the chances of unseating members of the Justice and Development Party, known in Turkish by the acronym AKP.

A main battleground appears to be the capital, Ankara. Opinion polls suggested the candidate of the opposition alliance, Mansur Yavas, could end the 25-year rule of AKP and its predecessor.

A former government environment minister, Mehmet Ozhaseki, ran for mayor under the banner of Erdogan and his nationalist allies. The ruling party accused his opponent Yavas of forgery and tax evasion. Yavas says he is the victim of a smear campaign.

Another closely watched mayoral election is in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city. Erdogan began his rise to power as its mayor in 1994 and said at campaign rallies that "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey."